Fox Island and its ‘magical’ classroom on stilts near their final act
This is the way the Fox Island Environmental Education Center ends: not with a gale or wrecking ball, but with the slow inevitability of wind and waves.
After four decades of hosting students and teachers, the spartan, barracks-style building that stands on stilts in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay is closing its doors at the end of this season, likely in early December.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which purchased the low-lying Virginia archipelago and its lone structure in 1975, is bidding a reluctant farewell to the facility. The cause, according to the conservation and advocacy group, is rising water that has swallowed about 70% of Fox’s land mass over the last half-century.
“It’s a really hard thing for us,” said Tom Ackerman, the foundation’s vice president of education. “Fox Island is the heart of our program. In some ways, it’s the heart of the organization. So, losing it is pretty tough.”
According to William Cronin’s book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake, the island group totaled 357 acres in 1895. By the book’s publication in 2005, it was down to 67 acres. A GIS survey conducted this year by the foundation showed a mere 34 acres remaining.
Fox Island was the first of what grew to four foundation-run island centers, where adults and children learn about the estuary’s ecology during multiday stays. The immersive experience drew tens of thousands of people to Fox over the years, the foundation estimates.
The nonprofit broke the news of Fox’s impending closure on its website in early October. The announcement drew an outpouring of nostalgia-tinged grief on social media.
Emily Rhode first visited Fox Island as a middle school student in the early 1990s. She tweeted that the program taught her how to pick a crab, properly skin an eel and appreciate silence.
“I fell in love with the Bay that summer and, by doing that, I found my life’s work,” said Rhode, now a science writer and educator based in Durham, NC. “Fox Island will always hold a sacred place in my heart. And I’m so sad that future generations will be denied the privilege of getting to know it.”
Ackerman said the foundation’s decision is based on safety concerns. The program has been forced to rearrange itineraries at the last minute with increasing frequency in recent years because tides or winds imperiled the facility.
Sea level rise is accelerating around the world as warmer temperatures cause ocean water to expand and glaciers to melt. It’s happening even faster in and around the Bay, possibly because of regional changes in ocean currents and wind patterns, as well as a phenomenon known as land subsidence — a sinking of the Earth’s crust that dates back to the last Ice Age.
Sea level rise and erosion have erased several islands that once stood in the Bay. The last of the inhabited islands without a bridge to the mainland — Tangier Island in Virginia and Smith Island in Maryland — have been transformed in recent years into real-life laboratories for adapting to climate change.
Tangier’s water tower is clearly visible from Fox Island’s shores, and Smith lies just over the horizon to the north. Much of what remains on Fox Island stands less than 2 feet above the surrounding water. But, unlike Fox’s neighbors, no one has come to its rescue.
“We don’t see this problem getting any better,” Ackerman said. “It’s heading in one direction.”
If humans had started reducing greenhouse gas emissions sooner, the education center might have been spared, Ackerman said. Since that didn’t happen, he added, its closure illustrates the kinds of heartbreaking decisions that will have to be made about coastal infrastructure in the future.
Water is the through-line of the center’s story.
Decades ago, the main island bore an uncanny resemblance, when viewed from above, to a fox in midstride. The name stuck even as large chunks of its body vanished beneath the waves. Maps still refer to it as Great Fox Island, but any illusions to grandeur went out with the tide long ago.
A group of investors constructed a hunting lodge on the island in 1929 but not on dry land. Instead, they perched it on pilings little more than 2 or 3 feet above the Chesapeake’s surface. A ringlet of small islands — the Fox archipelago — sheltered it from rough seas.
After the Chesapeake Bay Foundation acquired the building, it quickly proved to be an ideal setting for teaching young people and adults alike about the Bay’s unique environment, said Cindy Adams Dunn, one of the nonprofit’s educators in the early 1980s.
“The wind, the tides, the weather, the wildlife — it’s just right there,” she said.
The facility’s quirks enforce a back-to-nature ethos, according to Dunn and other current and former foundation staff members.
Rooftop solar panels provide only enough electricity for a refrigerator, radio and handful of lights. There’s a composting toilet. A propane tank delivers gas to the stove and oven. Water for cooking and bathing comes from a shallow well, but drinking water is hauled in from the mainland in giant jugs.
One of the place’s memorable novelties was that energy for the water pump was generated by someone pumping the pedals on a stationary bike. (The bike is no longer linked to the pump, but it remains in the kitchen to anyone seeking some impromptu exercise.)
Cell phone service is weak but available. Staff members encourage participants, especially the young, to place their phones in a bin at the beginning of their stay and retrieve them at the end.
The island experience is otherwise off the grid.
“It’s nice and quiet,” said Larry Laird, a plainspoken Smith Island native who pilots students around on his 40-foot, jet-drive boat named the Walter Ridder. “A good place at night to see the stars.”
Laird and a small crew of fellow foundation employees tied up the boat Oct. 13 at Crisfield on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for one of the last educational outings to the island. A charter bus greeted them at the marina but only after creeping through saltwater standing as much as 2 feet deep on some of the town’s roads, a result of so-called “sunny day” flooding.
Such floods are forecast to happen more often in low-lying places around the Bay as seas continue to rise this century, experts say.
Into the boat’s lower hull went duffel bags, rolling suitcases, blankets, fishing rods and enough provisions to last the group three days and two nights. The passengers included 13 middle and high school students, their teacher and a few adult chaperones from Halifax Area School District, a small rural school in central Pennsylvania near the Susquehanna River — one of the Bay’s largest tributaries.
Lenka Platt, an 18-year-old senior, organized the trip through the student organization she founded, the Student Environmental Action Club. She hoped the excursion would inspire her classmates to take action in their corner of the watershed to protect the Bay.
“We’re looking at the environment we want to save,” Platt said, standing on a pier waiting for the call to board the boat. “I’m going to be one of the last students that gets to go. It’s because of our human actions that it has to close.”
With all aboard, Laird slipped the boat out of Somers Cove and into Pocomoke Sound. After 30 windblown minutes, a shoebox-shaped silhouette loomed into view: the education center.
But where was Fox Island? Surely, these few scraps of salt marsh and that lonesome stretch of sandy beach couldn’t be it. But they were.
“The smaller it gets, the quicker it erodes,” said Jeff Varnon, the last in the line of Fox’s education program managers. “There’s less of it to hold together. One storm from the right direction, and the center is gone.”
After unloading their gear into the center’s 11 bedrooms and catching a quick briefing in the clubhouse-like living room, the students got down to work.
Varnon and another foundation educator, Lucas Scott, gathered the children onto a dock along with a giant stack of multi-colored crab traps. They handed each a dead fish, an oily specimen known as menhaden, and explained its dual role as a key Bay filter-feeder and cog in the crabbing industry. Then came the messy part: shredding the fish by hand (to release the oils) and tucking the pieces into a special pouch in the trap to serve as bait.
Under a slate sky, Laird brought the students back out on the boat, where each took turns hurling traps into the water, an iconic Chesapeake pastime known as crab-potting. The next day, with any luck, there would be a crab feast.
Platt said she aspires to be a biologist working on the Bay. If that happens, she will join a long list of students whose Fox Island experiences helped propel them into academia, volunteering or government leadership roles.
“It’s probably something that’s motivated me in my upstream work,” said Adams Dunn, now the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Once this season winds down, the foundation plans to put the property up for sale. Programming will continue, Ackerman said, but it will take place at the nonprofit’s Port Isobel Island facility near Tangier. It is refurbishing some buildings on the west side of the campus to accommodate those who would have once traveled to Fox on the opposite side of Tangier Sound.
For many who spent time at Fox Island over the years, what they will miss most isn’t the building, the islands or anything tangible at all. It’s something they call “Fox Island Magic.”
“That’s something you might hear a lot about if you speak to folks who have come out and stayed here,” said Varnon, who has been stationed there for two years. “It’s a unique experience that Fox Island has that’s hard to find elsewhere even among our other island programs. There’s something about Fox that connects you to the Bay so completely. You’re immersed from the moment you step off the dock to the moment you leave.”
The program has been living on borrowed time. The end nearly came in September 2003 when Hurricane Isabel tore off the west side of the building and punched away half of the flooring.
The foundation wasn’t ready to let it go then. It fixed the damage, and classes resumed 11 months later.
A scrapbook lying on the center’s coffee table tells the story of the rebirth, one photo at a time. The last page shows the building looking like new.
At the bottom of the page, there’s a triumphant message scrawled in black marker: “Open for business … the MAGIC returns.”